The Psychology of Victim Blaming

Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for what happened to them. It’s an ugly form of prejudice that can make it more difficult for survivors to receive the support they need and encourages them not to come forward out of fear of being blamed. It also takes away from the importance of holding people who do harm accountable.

A recent tweet from comedian and Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger sparked a national conversation about victim blaming and why it’s so harmful. While blaming victims of assault isn’t unique to him or any other comedian, his comments are symptomatic of this pervasive attitude in society. It’s important to understand the psychology behind victim blaming so that you can recognize it and challenge it when it happens to you or someone else.

People who blame victims tend to have a warped view of the world that equates tragedy with personal responsibility. This is often due to the “positive assumptive worldview theory,” which posits that most people believe the universe is a positive place and adverse events don’t occur without reason. As a result, these people may equate tragedies with bad decisions and success with good ones, which can lead them to feel less empathy for others when they suffer.

In addition, the inclination to victim blame can be linked to people’s moral values and how they believe the world works. For example, in four studies, psychologist Liane Young and her colleagues found that moral values significantly influenced how much people endorsed victim blaming behavior. They found that participants with stronger individualizing values, who were more focused on fairness and preventing harm to individuals, were more sympathetic to victims. In contrast, people with more binding values, who were more focused on protecting a group or the interests of an organization as a whole, tended to be more likely to blame victims.

Another factor that influences how much people victimize others is the similarity of a situation to them. Research has shown that the more relevant a scenario is to a person, the less they engage in victim blaming (Gray, Palileo & Johnson, 1993). The same principle applies to people who report pleasure at another’s suffering, known as “schadenfreude.”

It can be incredibly challenging for a survivor of sexual violence to share their experience because they know how the people around them will react. This can cause them to hold themselves responsible for the trauma or stay silent in fear that they will be blamed or shamed. This can lead to an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. It can also make them less likely to seek services that could help with their healing, such as counseling and mental health care.

When a friend or family member shares their experiences with you, remember that they trust you enough to tell you what they went through and that it is never their fault. Their story is important and you have the power to change the culture of victim blaming by adjusting your own mindset and publicly challenging victim-blaming attitudes when they arise.